For the first time in history, people with visual or reading disabilities can read a book at the same time that the others do, that is on its release. This is possible thanks to ePub.
Despite the ebook market is currently static and a certain passion for printed books is once again fashionable, the digital support is the only one to enable visually impaired readers or people with reading difficulties to easily enjoy a book.
Not all however have the same accessibility needs. For instance, a blind person may need a text that is readable through the braille display, as well as easily accessible from the index, and therefore that the semantic structures (headings, subheadings, notes, etc.) are well distinct. Partially blind people or people with reading difficulties, in turn, will require that the displayed content is fluid, i.e. the possibility to increase or decrease the font size, to change the font or to edit the color contrast. Other necessary features may be speech synthesis (however respecting syllabication and a correct language pronunciation), image descriptions, charts and tables or, in case of mobility impaired readers, voice commands to turn pages.
The Web Accessibility Guidelines
All these features however are not automatically included in any ebook or ePub. Actually, an ePub has to be correctly implemented and follow certain specific guidelines to be considered accessible. That is why in June 2018 the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) working group updated the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG 2.1 are based on four fundamental principles already identified in 2009, according to which multimedia contents must be:
- Perceivable, i.e. all users, with disabilities or not, must be able to access whatever content.
- Operable, i.e. the user must be able to fully operate the content and the page including it.
- Understandable, i.e. the user must be able to understand the content and to predict the results of the interaction with it.
- Robust, i.e. the content must be compatible with current and future systems.
17 new criteria were then added to these points, serving as a test for the accessibility level, going from A (lowest) to AAA (highest). These are much more specific and ease the content usability in relation both to the device in use to read it and the multimedia page displayed to the user.
Currently, the format allowing the highest inclusivity level is iPub3, which employs HTML5 (the same language used for websites) and thus allows the creation of simple texts (fiction, text only) and complex ones (books with images, charts and tables). It also allows to include interactive and multimedia elements. This version is then managed by W3C, which allowed publishers to require specific features for the inclusion of publishing metadata indicating the accessibility level in the ebook, of ARIA tags identifying the different portions of text, as well as to be compatible with DRM (Digital Rights Management) systems.
EEA: a change of perspective
To date there are still several publishers using the ePub2 format, despite the conversion to the most recent version is not that complex. Much more complex is instead the change of perspective on accessible content creation work, which is still considered a plus following the publication.
Nothing could be more distant from reality. In fact, on 7 June 2019 the European Commission published the European Accessibility Act (EAA), i.e. a directive listing and ensuring all the accessibility requirements of different products and services. The fact that the regulation includes the above mentioned guidelines, integrated with the provisions of the Marrakesh Treaty (according to which, in short, copyright is limited in case of accessible content production), clarifies the extent to which the EAA affects the entire book chain.
In particular, the directive establishes that by 2025 most of the personal computers (hardware and software), e-commerce stores, banking services, self-service terminals, ebooks and reading services available and put on the market comply with the established accessibility requirements.
Accessible Italian Books
In Italy the quality control of such products and the awareness-raising on the issue have long since been assigned to Fondazione LIA (Accessible Italian Books). At the international level, the foundation is acknowledged as a virtuous and cutting-edge case that acts at the research level by participating in international working groups and tables and at the market level by supporting different publishers in the development of accessible products and publishing over 12.000 books a year.
The method suggested by the foundation is to integrate the accessibility certification phase in the production and distribution processes. This has made LIA a certification “authority” for the texts of different publishers (a green label can be found beside the ebooks on e-commerce stores). It can thus be stated that Italy will start from an excellent working method example to comply with the regulation provisions. Not to mention the market that is opening for publishers. The foundation found in fact that people with reading or visual disabilities read three times as much as the others, where of course books are made accessible.
Philosophy postgraduate at Pavia University, she is studying Publishing at Università Cattolica in Milan. In October she will move to University of California Irvine to start a PhD in Epistemology. She is interested in the impact of social media on social behaviors, the interaction between traditional culture and pop culture and the use of language as a knowledge tool.